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  • The New South AfricaProblems of Reconstruction
  • Charles Simkins (bio)

When political parties were unbanned in South Africa and Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990, more than just a new political dynamic was unleashed. Within weeks, an intense debate about economic policy was also under way. New economic thinking was required from both the establishment and the African National Congress (ANC). The establishment had to confront the fact that the economy had become very inefficient. Per-capita GNP had been declining since the mid-1970s (with the exception of a blip caused by the gold-price boom of the early 1980s). The ANC had to confront the implications of the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, especially as its own economic thinking had become radicalized over the course of 30 years in exile.

A degree of disorientation followed. Some intellectuals on the left transferred their allegiance from the authoritarian socialism of Moscow to the authoritarian capitalism of Seoul. Some intellectuals on the right, meanwhile, found themselves supporting popular calls for the transfer of local-government housing to tenants at nominal prices. International experts from academia and the global financial institutions made their appearance and contributed new perspectives, marking an end to South Africa’s long period of intellectual isolation. South African business leaders were actively involved in the debate from the start, and sponsored a large number of meetings and conferences. One businessman, Derek Keys, became minister of finance in 1992 and continued to hold office through the first few months of President Mandela’s government of national unity. [End Page 82]

As it became clear that the third round of formal negotiations would lead to elections in 1994, the ANC came under increasing pressure to declare its economic policies in some detail. The old habit of referring to the Freedom Charter of 1955 was no longer enough, so in late 1993 it produced several drafts of a new plan, entitled the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). A final version published in early 1994 was used as an election manifesto. The claim made for the program in the first paragraph of the document was all-encompassing: “The RDP is an integrated, coherent socio-economic policy framework. It seeks to mobilise all our people and our country’s resources toward the final eradication of apartheid and the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist future.” 1 In the run-up to the April 1994 elections, the ANC leadership asked to be judged by its performance on the RDP, which soon came to be regarded as the major statement of ANC policy. The ANC has continually stressed the transforming nature of the RDP, asking people to consider it not simply as a collection of projects, but rather as the embodiment of a set of values.

Few in South Africa would now deny that some sort of economic development program is needed. Apartheid has left a legacy of unemployment, unmet infrastructural needs, deficits in human capital, and great inequality in the distribution of income. Using a strict definition of unemployment, which requires that the unemployed individual be actively looking for work, the October Household Survey (an annual demographic and labor-market survey conducted by the state) found that 17 percent of “economically active” men and 25 percent of women were unemployed in 1994. An additional 9 percent of men and 16 percent of women are involuntarily unemployed but not actively seeking work. In the early 1990s, average class size in schools attended by blacks was twice that of schools attended by other groups, and blacks succeeded in passing the final examination given at the end of the last year of secondary school at only half the rate of other groups. The average per-capita income of blacks is about one-eighth that of whites. While the suburbs enjoy excellent public services, those in the townships are substandard and subject to frequent disruption. These gaps must be closed if democracy is to have a real impact on economic opportunity in South Africa.

It is essential that the RDP enjoy support beyond the adherents of the ANC. Although the ANC has three times as...

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